September 17th 2014

Grandes Jorasses - Bonatti Vaucher

Aah the Jorasses, I’d been waiting far too long for it’s North Face to come back in to condition. You can of course climb anything you want out of condition, but the Jorasses does have the rather unfortunate combination of poor granite and huge rock slabs when it’s not got ice on it. And that sucks, as I found out earlier on this year….but more on that in another post.

It turned out that my time in Pakistan had been a wise choice- though we didn’t make the summit we also managed to miss out on the horrific weather that was going on in Chamonix; all this precipitation though was good news for the autumn and it quickly became apparent that this would be a season to remember on the Grandes Jorasses. ‘Once in a lifetime conditions’ was a phrase that seemed to accompany every Facebook post and helped fuel the mania, but this does tend to happen every 5 years or so, so unless you’re a beaver or a domestic rabbit (I checked) it’s something that you’ll see again.

I had my eye on a lot of routes to be honest, but we had a very short weather window of only two days so we were a bit limited, as ideally you want to get off the thing before another storm hits. The face had only just seen its first ascents of the season in the days preceding- I could feel that there was a lot of interest this year in the face and I had missed the first few days of the weather window on a photoshoot on the Aiguille Chardonnet (tough life). So we opted for the Bonatti- Vaucher, a route I was sure would be pretty devoid of climbers seeing as it’s reputation is one of the loosest routes on the face. The Bonatti had just had its first ascent in many years a few days previously by friends Fred and Ben, so we knew conditions were going to be good, which is always nice.

On the approach to the Grandes Jorasses

On the approach to the Grandes Jorasses

So Ally and I set off, intending to do a leisurely ascent of the face and opting to stick a bivy high up on the face. The fashion is very much to do things ‘in a day’ in Chamonix, but when it comes to big routes like the Jorasses I actually quite like going the bivy option. I’d rather do two fun and non stressed days out rather than have to pull a massive day out of the bag and spend a good portion of it exhausted and worried that we aren’t going to make it out of the face before night fall. In autumn the temperatures are so warm that you can get away with really light bivy kit, and it’s quite nice waking up at the base of the route after a good night’s sleep, rather than spending it crammed in to the Leschaux bivouac hut with a two hour walk in still to go in the morning. Personal preference I guess, but North Faces are stressful enough without having to make them even more so because you want to do them faster than anyone else.

Dinner Time

Dinner Time

So we slept in, it was nice. The Bonatti-Vaucher shares the same start as No Siesta and Manitua so I led off in the dark and we quickly caught up with a couple of Spaniards who had left the hut early that morning for the same route. We would end up climbing the whole route side by side which was fine as they turned out to be great company, as well as much better climbers than us.

Simul climbing at the start of the day, © Ally Swinton

Simul climbing at the start of the day, © Ally Swinton

Daybreak somewhere on the easy ramps

Daybreak somewhere on the easy ramps

Queues of people already on the Colton Macintyre

Queues of people already on the Colton Macintyre

Ally arrives at the start of the first 'proper' pitch

Ally arrives at the start of the first ‘proper’ pitch

Cant complain about the ice conditions!, © Ally Swinton

Cant complain about the ice conditions!, © Ally Swinton

Awesome, if a bit thin, ice

Awesome, if a bit thin, ice

Carlos on the lead beneath us

Carlos on the lead beneath us

Ally tackles a small bulge

Ally tackles a small bulge

More great ice

More great ice

The Bonatti-Vaucher is known for its poor rock quality, which is the reason I’ve never really been drawn to it. I do quite like to have gear when I need it, and I know from experience that the Jorasses can harbour some really terrible granite when it wants to. So given the ‘exceptional’ conditions now felt like a good time to quest up this route. And the conditions didn’t let us down- it was a decidedly ice biased mixed route which was fine by us. The pitches flew by with the exception of a really unpleasant loose flake pitch but a bit of swearing later, some serious rope drag, and we were back on easier ground again and at our intended bivouac for the night. But it was only two o’clock, even by my lazy standards in the mountains this was a bit early to stop.

Starting up some awkwardness, © Ally Swinton

Starting up some awkwardness, © Ally Swinton

The bivy site area

The bivy site area

Above us reared the last few pitches to the summit, by the looks of them they would be the cruxes. As we were still climbing as two rope teams back to back we decided to tie in to one team to avoid the other having to wait constantly for the team in front to clean the route. We would call the new team the Super-Duper International Rope of Friendship, and as the spaniards offered to take the lead straight away (I got the impression we might have been holding them back) and being the ever gracious person that I am I let them charge on- you never say no to a free top rope after all….that would be stupid.

So off headed Silver in to the depths of a rotten looking corner. It wasn’t very pretty but he fought hard, hard enough that he took a massive whipper and that was the end of that. Off headed Carlos, and down came a battering of rocks over the next hour or so. I ended up taking two big rocks to my right shoulder and one to my left knee, I was glad we brought bivy kit as it was now providing some kind of protection from the deluge above- protect the belayer at all costs. Unfortunately the belayer, me, had already been smashed up and I was a bit worried about finishing the route off given I couldn’t pull hard on my right arm anymore. Oh well, watch out here comes Carlos on his big whipper. Holding two big falls didn’t inspire us with much psyche to give it our ‘turn’ but thankfully Carlos yarded back on the ropes and got straight back on it- I wasn’t complaining, but I did pull my down protection a bit tighter around me. After an age of tenuous aiding through this pitch Carlos finally pulled out on to easier ground. Legend.

Silver tries to aid his way up rotten rock before the gear rips as does he...

Silver tries to aid his way up rotten rock before the gear rips as does he…

Ally takes a well earned break

Ally takes a well earned break

Bivy kit has many uses- it's also a great crash mat from falling rocks when belaying, © Ally Swinton

Bivy kit has many uses- it’s also a great crash mat from falling rocks when belaying, © Ally Swinton

Carlos has a go....

Carlos has a go….

Seconding the pitch was painful on my knee and shoulder, but pulling out the terrible pro he’d aided on I was glad it hadn’t been me. Still amped, Carlos led the next pitch of thin goulotte ice and in to the darkness. We felt like we only had one more pitch to go to the summit and with Carlos and Silver having given their all earlier on, it was only fair we did a bit of work as well (outrageous). I think we were off route a bit as an easy pitch turned in to an off width flake with a very dodgy top out that left me heaving in pain from my right shoulder- I let out a ‘whooohoo’ as I topped out glad to be off the face, simultaneously met with a cheer from below and a shameful realisation that actually we still had another pitch to go. Ooops! I was a bit beat then and felt very guilty asking the Spaniards to finish the final pitch off but I just couldn’t pull on my right arm any more.

A cannae get me torch on...

A cannae get me torch on…

Carlos brought us up to the summit ridge proper and a full moon. Great work. Hugs all round. I quested off on the south side to find a bivy spot out of the wind whilst the others came up. A quick ledge stomping later and we were all laid out watching a thunderstorm over the Aosta Valley- a good start to the Jorasses season.

The following morning was a wee bit chilly

The following morning was a wee bit chilly

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